The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Breaking Away January 31, 2016

“Oh, your job is done” my friend said, very matter-of-factly. I waited a moment to see if she planned on elaborating. I’d never heard it put so directly before. I knew exactly what she meant, but I paused, hoping she might soften her comment a bit. “He’s what, twelve? Almost thirteen?” She paused, but not long enough to reassure me. “Yeah” she nodded, “You’re definitely done.”

We’d been ruminating about the major life change that comes about when your kids don’t need you the way it seemed they always would. The time when mommy becomes mom, when the bedroom door shuts with a distinct click, when your kid tells you that you wouldn’t understand – and you can’t protest, cuz you know he’s right, you probably wouldn’t. I’d been emotionally preparing for this, so I can’t say it was unexpected. What was jarring was just how blunt my friend had been about it. She went on to explain, “When you’re pregnant, you could have the baby at six months. It would be premature, but it would survive. So the last three months are basically just incubating. And that’s kind of what’s going on now. He has everything on board, now it just has to integrate. So yeah, you’re done.” I knew she was right. But I still wanted to believe that Elihu would always need me. It wasn’t like I didn’t want him to learn how to live in the world without me – but I still couldn’t truly see it happening. His vision issues, his inherent clumsiness… How would he ever live on his own? Then on the other hand he was smart, savvy, full of good humor and common sense. And as we spoke, he was hundreds of miles away in another country.

In the Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs, each seventh grade class takes a trip to Quebec as part of their French studies. They take the train to the Canadian border, spend a night in Montreal and a day there sightseeing before heading further north the historic town of Quebec City. There they embark, in groups of three, on a day-long quest – a scavenger hunt of sorts – in which they must ask for directions only in French, in which they must budget their money, buy lunch and trinkets as the stash allows, and reconvene with the class when they’ve made it through the list of clues and directions – all given only in French. They sketch monuments during the day, they journal in French in the evening. They stay in hostels, schlep packs through the snowy streets, they take a bus into the country, they experience a dogsled ride, they visit an ice hotel. And all the while, the boys and girls flirt, make inside jokes, and test the waters with forbidden swear words and primitive sexual innuendos. Change has begun.

It’s not as if the change hasn’t been taking place up until now – but there is a new awareness that comes of this landmark trip – there’s a certain new confidence in my child, and a certain kind of vision for the future, too. He’s been given a glimpse of what life might be like surrounded by his peers – instead of his parents. And he’s thrilled with the way it feels. Don’t get me wrong – I am positively thrilled for him too. I can’t remember a time when my son has ever been so happy, so exuberant, so proud, so joyful. Truly, no experience in his life has left such an immediate and dramatic impression on him. Even today, two days after his return, his first words upon opening his eyes were about the trip. In his head swirls a great collage of images. For all of this I am deeply grateful, and I’m incredibly excited to see the ways in which my son will grow into a fully independent individual and break away on his own path. I know it’s not around the immediate corner, but it certainly feels much closer than ever before.

IMG_2096His French journal of the trip – and his new coonskin cap from the dog sledding adventure.

imageThe seventh grade got a train car to themselves.

IMG_2089Ever thinking of things aviation-related, Elihu drew a schematic of an RC helicopter en route.

IMG_2107The next day in Montreal, Elihu drew a detail of the interior of the Basilique de Notre Dame.

image (7)Off they go on their scavenger hunt.

image (5)Quebec City really has a European feel.

image (6)There’s topography which requires a funicular. Fun!

image (8)Ice skating at night. Elihu has never enjoyed this sport, but this time he stuck it out until he got his bearings. (Thanks to classmate and talented athlete Norah for encouraging him to try!)

image (4)The class went dog sledding on the last day.

image (2)An intimate, hands-on experience, with just two passengers; one drove, one sat. The dogs were raring to go and they sped over the narrow trail through the woods. Probably the highlight of the trip for Elihu.

imageThey got to smooch a puppy too!

imageLast event on the itinerary was the ice hotel.

image (2)The seventh grade Canadian adventure was a life-changing trip, and a memory which Elihu and his classmates will treasure always.

IMG_2064A new young man arrives home.


 

Returned Home August 7, 2014

To begin with, the train was four hours late. It wasn’t too terribly bad for me; I enjoyed a relaxed walk around downtown Schenectady, stopped by a local shop and had a nice long visit with the owners (whom I knew from years of such train travel), I explored a more hardcore city neighborhood and dropped in on a West Indies grocery (in search of some mango pickle) where I passed almost another hour chatting with new friends and learning the similarities and differences between Indian and West Indies cuisine, among other things. I watched the C130s flying in and out of the nearby airfield, their immense bodies and thundering engines shocking me at each pass…  All in all I took it well in stride, but admittedly as I waited on the platform in those final minutes, the wait was becoming too much. It must have been much worse to have suffered it on the train, so I waited in sympathy for my weary traveler.

They were the very last two passengers to disembark, and as they approached I hardly recognized the pair; Fareed at this point has a head of nearly all-white hair, and our son hardly looks a tiny boy anymore. Of course I knew this intellectually, but somehow his height shocked me – in fact his whole appearance shocked me. Handsome with a fresh haircut and oxford shirt, he seemed so much older. We didn’t kiss, we didn’t even fully hug (I’d harbored a tiny fear he might be newly reserved in our reunion and so had also readied myself for this too), but nonetheless he laughed at my mouth, agape, my speechless reception. And there we were. The three of us, together, again. I reminded myself to keep the recent unpleasant exchanges with my ex altogether apart from this experience. I’d done this many times before – but this time, on the heels of an emotionally charged round of FB messages, it felt different to me. Several recent ‘pep’ talks from friends cautioning me to keep my ex at an emotional distance helped me to stay aware. I’d been such a sucker for so many years, this time might I keep my dignity and not allow him to hurt me or push my buttons? I would give it my very best. Having the distraction of my beloved son helped, and as we got into the car and drove home in the dark, there was no lack of things to catch up on, and conversation was easy and stress-free.

I made us the nicest dinner I could in as little time as possible, and before too long we had dug into some fresh sweet corn and home-made tandoori chicken, plus a little wine, thanks to my recent houseguest Ken (whom I’d dropped off on my way to pick up the guys). After supper Fareed put a string on my garage-sale-find-of-a-guitar, and then the three of us settled on the couch to watch a little something together. Things felt easy and good, and our son was truly happy, happy, happy to be seated in between his mother and father, no matter what it was we happened to be doing. Fareed explained that he’d recently been on a Bill Hicks kick, and that he really wanted to share the comedian’s stuff with me. He explained it was a bit racy, but that the cat was deep, that he had a message. Our child is no stranger to profanity, and he himself knows full well it’s not appropriate for him to use in everyday life, so it’s not a huge deal. Good thing too; this bit was loaded. In many ways. We all enjoyed it, but before the video was done Elihu told us he’d had enough and was very tired. So we went off to get ready for bed.

Again, all was well, all was peaceful and relaxed. I hadn’t realized it, but Fareed was planning on reading a bit to Elihu, and so he joined us on the big bed to read a short story. I don’t even remember what it was I’d said – granted, in the wake of the vulgarity and off-color routine we’d spent the last half hour watching, my mind may have been off in the wrong direction – but I made some passing attempt at a joke; I’m sure it was stupid (I don’t remember what it was that I said) and suddenly Elihu started to cry. Fareed got angry at me – very angry.  His tone shifted in an instant, and he virtually spat at me, telling me that I’d been inappropriate and to shut up. I was floored. Now imagine, I think we’re all kinda still horsing around, that stuff is light and going nicely – so both the eruption of tears and my ex’s venom were a complete surprise. Boom! And there it was. All of a sudden I was the bad guy – the one who’d gone too far. ?? I tried to stay myself, and I did. If it were anyone else they probably would have told Fareed to go and get the fuck out of the room – that that sort of reaction was far beyond what the situation required, it being in of itself  inappropriate and inflammatory. But then there was lil man, between us, crying. I had to suck it up. “I think I’m just really tired”, my self-aware boy offered. Fareed shot me a look of such hate and rage that I knew Elihu’s comment meant nothing. Christ, this surely sucked. I rolled over and took half an Ambien as Elihu’s father continued reading. I needed to get the hell out of this situation, and my adrenaline was pumping. I prayed the drug would do its thing quickly. I believe it did, because I don’t remember the end of the story, but I remember seeing Fareed get up and leave. I asked him to turn out the light, which he did before closing the door.

Elihu roused when his father left and began talking. By this time I was very drowsy, so it took some effort to stay with him, but clearly, he needed to talk. When I’d thought our conversation over, he’d pick it up again. On it went like this for another fifteen minutes or so as my son emptied his heart to me as he hadn’t in a long time. “Mommy, it wasn’t what you said. I was just really tired. That’s all.” “Okay, sweetie. You don’t have to say that, but thanks.” We lay there for a minute in the dark. I knew there was more coming, so I said nothing and waited.

“I think I’m beginning to get it” he said. “I think it’s because I’m older. Because I understand it in a different way now.” I didn’t have to ask him what he meant. I just let him talk. “Do you know how many times I cried in the back of the Sprinter?” he asked. He tried to explain that even though he was part of that other family, he couldn’t shake the knowledge that he really wasn’t – and that it wasn’t his own mother sitting there with his father. “I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if that was my real family in that car” he added. “Oh but sweetie, they are your real family too.” He paused. I knew what he had meant. “You mean if it had been me and daddy, and maybe another child of ours?” I asked. “Yeah.” He paused again, then asked me “How come you and daddy don’t get along like other divorced parents? Like other people who aren’t married anymore?” He’s asked me this before, and I always point out that we do get along – I cite our enjoyable dinners, our light conversation. “But you’re not together in your heart” he answered. I knew what he meant, and I could be polite and agreeable all day long but this would never change. Again, I apologized, told him how badly I felt about all of this – how I’d have chosen otherwise if I could have. Maybe this wasn’t the time, but again I reminded him that we would never have known about chickens, about birds, about life in the country had none of this happened. Yeah, this time that argument didn’t matter much to him. Eilhu was stuck in a great meditation on the ‘what might have beens’, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I explained that the reason his mother and father weren’t perhaps as comfortable together as other ‘ex couples’ might be related to the order in which things happened. I said that most people conclude a relationship, take some time to heal and regroup, and then start a new one. And then they start their new family. Not always, but mostly. “I think I just got that this summer” he said quietly. “Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. But I just got that in a way I hadn’t gotten it before.” Man. I’d always had a hunch – doesn’t take a genius to come to the conclusion either – that one day, perhaps in his mid teens maybe, he’d look back on things with a fresh perspective. One day he would get it. I had no idea that day would come so soon.

My ex had recently accused me of bad parenting, and his eruption at me seemed his way of confirming this idea for himself. As if he needed to stay his ground. See here? You’re doing it right now! appeared to be the subtext. (A larger population might find both of us guilty of bad parenting for the Bill Hicks thing alone!) Earlier, I’d heard him scold Elihu for biting his spoon when he ate. I had hated the intensity with which he’d done so, but again, he’s Elihu’s father, he has a right to express things he feels are important. “So what’s going on with the spoon?” I asked as we backed off the heavy stuff. “I kind of have a tick” he began. I’d suspected something like this (he and I both have anxiety issues – he mitigates anxiety by releasing it in some repetitive sort of behavior, something which migrates as it’s identified). “I kinda want to bite the spoon to get rid of the feeling.” Yeah. I got it. “Ok, so you’re aware. That’s good.” We were quiet again. In my head I replayed the scolding his dad had given him. Me, I didn’t dig that moment of parenting. I shook it off and reminded myself that at least my son was finally home. “But you did have a really good summer, right?” I asked him, wanting to end on something of a positive note. I knew he had – in fact it was one of his best summers ever, but I could hear he was getting tired. He didn’t have much left. “Yeah, I did.” As I turned on my side to get ready to sleep, Elihu put his arm around me. I’d thought he might have wanted some space, so I had left him alone. I smoothed my hand over his head and told him I loved him. “You wanna go sleep with daddy tonight?” I offered, trying to make a demonstration of fairness. “No, I want to stay here with you.” My heart melted, and I was washed over with relief.

Things were changing all around me in my life and nothing seemed predictable anymore, but none of that mattered because my son was back. The epicenter of my life, my heart – my entire world – was right there in my arms. Finally, after one very long summer, my son had returned home.

IMG_0070The evening before, Zac, Stephanie and their three girls came by for an impromptu visit just as Ken and I were finishing up with supper.

IMG_0075Middle girl Bailey piles Elihu’s stuffed birds on her daddy’s lap.

IMG_0106Stanley the frog is always good entertainment.

IMG_0085So is the trampoline.

IMG_0115Zac, always himself building, repairing or figuring something out, looks over Ace’s bird sculpture. (He once identified an old model T wheel on the other sculpture that sits a few feet away and outside of this shot.)

IMG_0118Kind of a crappy picture  – but I had to share… Check out the way the whole family piles in the truck’s front seat. So redneck (in the awesome sense of the word!). Love it.

IMG_0148A quick goodbye selfie of me and my new ‘old’ friend, Ken, just as I dropped him off to go and pick up dad and son.

IMG_0165In Schenectady I found my new Indian food mecca… Closest thing to Devon Street I’ve seen outside of Chicago. Love the crazy assortment of goods, from pots and pans to produce and plenty of Bollywood* videos and CDs.

IMG_0156Saw a few vegetables that were new to me.

IMG_0153My new friend and store owner Ramesh shows me a kind of string bean I’d never seen before.

IMG_0155Now this is what I’m talkin about…

IMG_0158Spent a good half hour chatting with Mattie, the gal in the middle. Her sister in law, on the left, gave me some good pointers on making my own garam masala. It’s a spice mixture that’s a lot like American barbecue in that it involves different spices depending on the region the recipe comes from.

IMG_0152Yeah, we had a good time!

IMG_0167Look at lil man… how short his jeans have become in seven weeks!

IMG_0183Closest thing to a family photo we’re gonna get.

IMG_0190Another bad pic – but the vibe is there. Elihu was laughing and laughing.

IMG_0197The kid mighta slept all day if I hadn’t woken him up. Still on a summer schedule, but we’ll get that turned around in a week or so. For now it’s all about making that emotional shift that always takes a few days after daddy time is done.

Post Script: Much as I try to edit my posts, errors always slip past – usually little nothings, but in this case I’d substituted the phonetic match for “Bollywood” with “Baliwood”… I can just see it; grand song and dance numbers with shadow puppets… or epic scenes with hundreds of beautiful Balinese women from Indonesia adorned with those huge gold headpieces, making eerie side-to-side eye movements and waving their surreal finger extensions in the air… Hmm, maybe I’m onto something here….

A rare second Post Script (the very first, I believe!). I won’t of course publish the initial email I received from my ex in response to this post, but I will post my reply:

————————————————–

I understand your perspective, but can’t agree on much of it. I do take jokes too far, but I truly missed the experience you described. You may well have said it, but know that I did not hear you say anything about a ‘magic moment’, and I merely made a stupid attempt a joke, likely at about the same time I guess… then it went south. I swear it was all a freaking surprise in my face…
What ‘peace and humor’?? (He cited his response to my joke.) Your hate was immediate and off the chain and out of proportion to any event that might have transpired, period. Truly, I was being silly, and meant no harm. Elihu was exhausted, and my timing wasn’t great, but that didn’t warrant such rage from you. 
You say ‘I haven’t learned’ – oh I have learned… I’ve learned that you’re a self-righteous, mean person when someone no longer serves a purpose in your life. You’re as cold as your parents. You can turn it on and off like a switch. Elihu can’t understand why you’re so ‘different’ when you’re here – he promises me that you’re fun, happy, that you smile. I don’t doubt that you’re a happy guy when folks are playing by your rules.
As for my cleaning up his room – he gets it. We’ve talked, and he understands as you don’t seem able. I need to get shit done when he’s gone – cuz when he gets back life starts to roll faster and faster… and whether you see the need or not, his room was a fucking mess and it needed help. I don’t have a partner to share the load, so I gotta get it done when I’m able. Sorry. Think what you please.
And regarding the ‘at least three’ lost friendships ‘because of my blogging’ – hey, if my truthful and heartfelt expression of my experience has turned someone away, then they probably shouldn’t be in my life.
You and I both want the very best for Elihu, and I believe the opposite about the blog; it will serve as a lovely record of his growing up, something he’ll be grateful for one day. I say nothing mean about you – certainly I’ve touted your value in his life many times. I do, however, express my personal feelings on matters that involve you – as you are the father of my child, and we shared nearly half of our lives together. I’m bound to have some residual feelings about the whole thing! That Elihu and I are living in poverty and you might be somehow implicit in that result – I understand that it might stand to embarrass you (I should hope it would!), but it’s our truth, so on the record it goes, just as we experience it. The blog’s content explores our life here and has virtually nothing to do with you; I don’t get why you think it’s so bad for our son.
Thanks for his great summer – and glad you were able to stay, it made all the difference in a good transition for Elihu.
 

Away… and Home July 7, 2013

This is one very, very big world. And there are so very, very many ways in which to live. Naturally, there is nothing like a trip away to highlight the differences (or similarities, as it may be) between the way you like to live your life, and the way others do. And there’s nothing like going away and then returning to your own house to help you to see it as others may. That certain way your house smells, for example. Living in it, you don’t notice it. But when you first open the door to your house and step inside, that first – and only that first – inhalation tells you things about your place you can never know in day-to-day life. When I lived in my giant, mid-century home, visitors would always tell me the place smelled ‘old’. And I could only know this for myself in that first, fleeting moment back. It smelled of wood, dust and dry, aging formica. Yeah, it did smell kind of old. Kind of like grandma’s. But within minutes it would be back to life as usual again, and once again I’d need an objective outside party to tell me how the joint smelled, because the scent became unnoticeable almost immediately. As it was here too. When I opened the door last night, the first thing that I smelled was the damp. (Here in upstate New York I always sense the relentless humidity first.) As I ventured into the living room, I noticed a particular scent that brought me back… it was the smell of the places where my father had taught, it was the smell of our older friend’s homes….I knew it, but what was it? I pondered as I stood there, noticing it for the first time, when it came to me as plain as day. Wet piano. And wet harpsichord. Yes, that’s it. The smell of slightly moist wood – but not just any wood. Not furniture, not floorboards, but instrument wood. Yeah, and the other stuff too… the felt of the hammers and plectra dampers, the varnish, the oxidation on the strings… Ok, maybe I’m being a teeny bit dramatic, but the funk of instruments left to themselves was unmistakable. Was it always like this? Did I just not notice? Interesting what appears in the wake of a short absence. (Mental note to myself: running a dehumidifier would not be an extravagance.)

Whether you fly, drive or take the train, you’re gonna pass a lot of homes. For me, most of my window-gazing thought on the train is spent considering all those tiny scenes as we slip by through people’s backyards, pass within feet of their back porches or speed over their neighborhood parks… From the country to the innermost city, we pass it all. A cross-section of the American population, unawares, just doing their thing as they do every day, and me, their most appreciative and grateful (and perhaps a bit apologetic) audience. It is simply too much to comprehend. I wish I could know what it was like to enter each of those homes, from rotting farm house to luxurious high rise condo – and furthermore, to live as the residents do. What is it that motivates them each day? What’s important to them? What’s the first thing they do in the morning? What’s on their minds? Some are content to live as hoarders, others cannot see life without granite counter tops. And so much in between. It blows my mind, so I try not to wonder at it too much. I just take it all in, reminding myself that just my tiny witness is enough. I’m lucky to be seeing so much of my world. I’ve also been lucky to have visited much poorer and more remote places on the other side of the planet in my lifetime, so wondering at the variety of this world is not a new thing to me. But nonetheless, it is always, always fascinating to me.

Elihu and I visited the beach this past week, and while we didn’t swim in the beautiful water of my beloved Lake Michigan (it hadn’t warmed up enough yet by my perhaps too-uptight standards) we did pass a lovely couple of hours just taking it in. The horizon, the clouds, the sky and water. And, of course, the seagulls. ! We brought several bags of bread and had fun feeding them. But even my own super-deft bird catcher of a son realized he wasn’t grabbing a gull and gave up his pursuit in favor of playing in the sand. I joined him. What a perfect moment in time we had. It’s a joy to have such a thoughtful son as mine; soon we were making metaphors between our play and life itself… It seems to me that any thinking human might have a hard time resisting the sort of contemplation that millions upon millions of grains of sand evoke. It can’t be just us. We note that even though there seems an infinitesimal amount of them – crazy as it seems, there is a finite number of sand grains on the planet. ! The many grains of sand remind us of all the people we’ve seen here. In the city, it seems not a single square foot is uninhabited. Everyone is out and about, each on their own chase, each with their head swimming with their own world of thoughts. There are millions of stories, sub-plots and interactions going on each single moment. As I’ve said before, this is a big world. And the beach seems to highlight it for us both. Yet at the beach, immensity and peace exist together, almost as the very same thing. We notice the juxtaposition, and we both marvel at it, continuing all the while our fruitless scooping out of the ever-wetting sand…

Contrasts slap you in the face when you partake of modern travel. One morning you can be feeding your chickens, and that night you can be on a city street in a valley of office buildings. This is not new to any of us in the Western world. This morning, as I awoke, I hardly felt I’d been away. While the images in my mind were somehow refreshed, they were still, just memories. (You got it – it all kinda felt like a dream.) I heard the clucking sounds of my flock from inside the coop and realized the timer hadn’t opened the door for them this morning. Automatically, I rose from my bed, donned my muck boots, and in my nightgown went to let the girls out. In the middle of my path, I thought back on a moment not more than a few days earlier and paused to let it sink in. Just a couple nights ago I’d been on stage at the Green Mill in front of a packed house doing my thing. Fan in hand, arms outstretched, belting out an old-timey jazz tune. Doing one of those things I feel I was just meant to do. Man, it was natural. And man, did it feel good. Came back like I’d never been away. But so did tending the chickens. Funny the latitude of experience in any one person’s life. So many folks have different careers, different homes, spouses… It’s nothing new to experience such vastly different things, but the rapid succession from jazz singer to chicken farmer still amuses me. I imagine myself on stage in my nightgown and boots, basket of eggs on my arm and it makes me smile to myself.

So here I am. Back. With a month or more of child-free living before me. Many might ask me what I plan to do with ‘all this time’, as if I might sunbathe or catch up on old episodes of a favorite show, but since I get all the sun I need working in the garden, and since I don’t watch much tv, those things don’t enter into it. Some of the things that are on my list are to get my piano teaching method book formatted and done, to learn some new computer skills so as to enhance my blog just a wee bit, to begin to prepare parts of my blog for a release as an eBook, as well as a myriad of ’round the farm type stuff. Enlarge the chicken run (involves digging fence post holes, yeeks), clean up the perennial garden outside the door, power wash the house on the side students and guests see first when they pull up, mow the lawn, paint the outside stairs. Lots and lots to do. Never mind the mess in the basement left in the wake of a busy school year – projects, supplies and out-of-season paraphernalia that haven’t yet been put away. If it weren’t for the photos on my data cards I might not fully believe that I’d ever even been away. But there is some tiny evidence of my trip; a deeper appreciation for space, clean air and nature all around. I am one lucky gal, I am. Lucky to have been given the gift of being able to go away for a while, and luckier still to know the even greater gift of coming home.